A few years ago, my hairdresser gave me one of her paintings, “Tulips by Lynette,” which I had unabashedly and covetously admired for years. I have since spent many happy hours in the company of these vibrant, showy red tulips flawlessly suspended in space and time and seemingly growing bolder by the day. The picture frame, with its shades of juniper and sage, pulls the eye to the flowers and away from the luxuriant foliage, where much of the vital activity is taking place. But neither the buds nor the artist is to blame for this injustice to the stems and leaves.
The culprit is the frame — with its invisible yet imperial power to enliven, endow, constrain or diminish the elements it encompasses. Similarly, conceptual frames are the lens by which we view, assess and make sense of personal circumstances, policies and the world around us. Our brains use frames to help us draw meaning from pictures, images, texts and words by fitting them into a mental structure. UC Berkeley Professor Lori Dorfman illustrates just how strong frames are: She asks participants to guess what is written here HFAJTH DJSRAPJTJFS. If you are like most people, you read health disparities. If that is the case, you got it wrong. The phrase is, in fact, HFAJTH DJSRAPJTJFS.
We use our mental frame to fill in the blanks and give meaning to what we see based on what we already know. We do so without being aware of the process. The problem is that real-world frames are not value-neutral — social and cultural assumptions underlie every model and every system. In “Locked in the Cabinet,” Robert Reich said, “How the national debate is framed — what options are put before the public — can be more important, ultimately, than the immediate choices made.” Since frames are typically tacit, perceived rather than consciously reasoned, assumptions habitually go unchallenged and are shielded from the debate.
One dominant frame is that of rugged individualism and meritocracy, which has it that a person is successful due solely to their innate talents and own individual efforts — not because of the privilege and entitlements afforded by their race, class, sex, gender, financial and social capital or the luck of where and in which decade they were born.
The converse also holds true in the public’s imagination due to the framing myth; a person is personally responsible for their lack of success. It is their fault. The danger of expecting equal success from unequal beginnings is that blame for a person’s lack of financial success is placed squarely on those who are least advantaged. This attribution error is as erroneous as claiming that winners of the lottery have exceptional merit and worth. Sadly, frames have the power to dictate how we see the world and how we view ourselves and our role within it.
In no place is this myth more damaging than for young students. It shapes students’ perceptions of their abilities and subsequently has the potential to limit students’ opportunities — in and out of school. It further has the potential to affect how the school system perceives students. This cycle of misperception all too often translates into abject frustration on the part of students and manifests in school dropout. This problem has the potential to reverberate through the decades.
On an intellectual level, we may know that meritocracy no longer holds true, if it ever did, but the frame is pervasive. The challenge when addressing racial and socioeconomic inequities is to make the structure visible and then to change it. In the words of Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We have to learn to see the world anew.”
In education, this has been about shifting the conversation from a deficit model of education — blame it on the kid — toward a more student-centered model: a model in which students receive the additional and relevant relational and academic support and scaffolds they require to succeed. It is also about accepting the validity of students’ lived experiences and respecting and valuing this role in inquiry and learning. The shift here is that knowledge does not derive from one single authoritative source, a change that can reposition teachers as activators of learners and learners as active contributors to their education. You may recognize Freire’s pedagogy here. It is one of hope and possibility, providing a path to social justice and social change through learning and empowerment.
Likewise, to address broader societal inequities, we must discard old frames. The first step is recognizing that they circumscribe what is possible. Doing so is not a one-time event but an on-going process. As Freire said, “in order to be, it must become.”
So, with this in mind, I recently removed the frame from “Tulips by Lynette.” The foliage can once again see the light and is free to grow in the direction it chooses. It seems to me the tulips are growing bolder by the day.